A few years ago someone posted on Facebook a photo and text about the Spanish Flu 1918-20. They wrote in disbelief that this pandemic may have killed up to 50 million people worldwide – had anyone else heard of it? It isn’t possible to read literature from the early part of the 20th century without reading about the Spanish Flu. However the fact that to a lot of people it seems to reside somewhere between a Jeopardy answer and some mentions on period dramas on Netflix means that for whatever reason, its impact doesn’t match other life altering events like the first and second world war. And yet as we all know now, a pandemic totally does alter everyone’s life – rapidly and completely.
We may not have a Guernica or King Lear yet to define COVID19 but we do have the casualties and the misery. This year I will not have seen my family in over twelve months. I have not been within 100 km of Toronto in a year. I feel like I am purgatory. Permanent weird purgatory. With snacks. And the internet.
I haven’t gotten sick but I now know two people who have. Both have recovered however the experience left them shaken and vigilant. I’ve also known two people who left this world during the virus perhaps being so deeply triggered by it, they felt it was a sign. I have family members who work in healthcare. Several with children in school. I have a sister overseas. Like most people I know a bit about every experience there is during the plague.
And yet, I am ever so removed from the plague as well. I have no neighbours so I rarely see anyone on a daily basis. Our trips to town or to social distance socialize are the same as they used to be albeit with masks and hand sanitizing. For me, the pandemic reaches us only through media; the internet or talking on the phone with people. Yeah, we still do that. In fact my partner called every person he knows over the holidays. Alphabetically. Covid19 is both real and not real for me. Because of this I am at a bigger distance from it than my city friends – psychologically and physically.
Why did the Spanish Flu not inspire vast works of art and genius? Was it that day to day dealing with it meant that the last thing anybody wanted to do was write or draw anything about it? Or was it that, much like the circumstances I find myself in, it’s a deeply odd psychological experience – that being “together apart” as the phrase is used is troubling but not troubling enough. Hard to tell. All I can do is muster some sensitivity to others, keep a lid on my own anxiety and reckon with an isolation akin and yet totally different than I’ve been used to these last twenty years.
The virus has changed everything and yet, we’ve tried to keep being the same. It’s a crazy existential place to be. I lie awake at night and think about why I haven’t just given up; why am I not just drinking my way through this thing? Why do I wake up every day and want to make it a great day regardless. Where the hell does that come from? It’s hard to know if I am delusional, in heightened self preservation mode or just waiting. Endlessly waiting.
Vaccines are here! But I still feel like I am in a production of Waiting for Godot. Speaking of which, as a side note, I really feel like we are being bullied into pivoting to digital while we wait to attend things like in the before times. I have stood fast against this tide and resisted the stampede to put everything online. I get it, people are scrambling to keep their doors open, keep their jobs. But digital is NOT a one-fix-all solution. Plus, the monetizing model that presently exists is nasty. But I digress…
During all this contemplation one of my favourite artists Adam Curtis released Can’t Get You Out of My Head. A seven hour rambling, mesmerizing video opus on ‘why the world is so darn complicated’. It was like crawling under a big blanket and forgetting about the world while totally being immersed in it. His films, a barrage of ideas and archival footage are trippy, fun, dark and yet hopeful.
People, he suggests, are not completely sure what being human is so we tend to cling to all sorts of things to get through life. We feel and think one way but the world around us is something else again. Complex systems are now our only shared experience because we can’t agree on any kind of reality – and this has gotten worse. It was a remarkable thing to view whilst in a quandary about the state of things.
Oddly the film made me feel so much better about the pandemic. As a devout absurdist who down deep doesn’t think anything really matters except love, I felt relieved. It was like getting permission to remember existence is weird. Finally a reason to live! Life is nuts, get on with it.